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Rikki Ducornet

In this uncertain world, of one thing we can be sure. It is never a good idea for a psychoanalyst to have sex with his patients.

That’s exactly what the unnamed narrator does in Rikki Ducornet’s eighth novel, “Netsuke.” He does it repeatedly, and without remorse or doubt. He assures each of the patients he seduces that she (or he) is the only one with whom it has ever happened.

The aging, priapic analyst lives with his wife, Akiko, in the suburbs of what is identified only as a “big city.” He sees patients on the grounds of his and his wife’s home, a shrine to austere beauty ministered by Akiko, who can spend hours deciding which branch to prune from a particular tree, so as to expose exactly the right sliver of view. Akiko spends her life, as she puts it, “rushing after beauty,” just as the narrator spends his rushing after unconscionable couplings.

The netsuke of the title are small, exquisite Japanese carvings, which Akiko and the analyst collect. The couple are drawn to the more sinister ones: a potbellied devil, a crab devouring a clam. The netsuke reflect husband and wife’s central, if unacknowledged, conflict — her devotion to a precise and pristine aesthetic, to perfect views and masterly carvings, versus his compulsion to have annihilating sex with people whose lives have already carved them into various distressing shapes.

The analyst sees his patients in one or the other of two small offices on his property. The office in which he sees his sexier patients is called Spells. The other patients, the ones with whom he is not interested in sleeping, are relegated to an office called Drear.

This is, in short, one very bad shrink.

For all its unsavory sex, however, “Netsuke” is not so much a story about predation as it is a story about a man trying to bring his own house down. The analyst has, for some time, felt stifled and stunted by the very markers of success to which many people aspire: prosperity, a fabulous home, a wife who is not only gifted, attractive and compassionate but also an acclaimed artist and a great cook. He uses his secret couplings, the most potent weapon at his disposal, in an attempt to undo it all.

Sex is always, on a certain level, simply about sex, and Ducornet doesn’t neglect the pure, feral satisfaction her character pursues so obsessively. Sex is usually, at the same time, about more than just sex, which is also very much the case here. The analyst flirts, constantly, with discovery. He tells his wife about the rapaciousness of certain female patients, even as she begs him to keep those stories to himself. He takes her to a restaurant where he knows they’ll encounter one of the patients with whom he’s sleeping. He has sex with his patients in his office, with his wife in her studio on the other side of the garden.

All praise to any novelist who takes us out onto thin ice, under which large, dark shapes are discernibly swimming. And, yes, some therapists do have sex with their patients. It’s not as if Ducornet’s analyst is taking liberties never before taken by any practitioner in the history of psychology.

Yet, any analyst who does what the man in “Netsuke” does is committing serious assaults. And everyone who assaults others does so for his or her own reasons. These Ducornet does not explore in much depth.

To her credit, Ducornet understands, as novelists must, that people are capable not only of wanting, with equal ardor, more than one thing at the same time, but of wanting things that directly contradict each other. The analyst appreciates his exquisitely ordered life even as he seeks to eradicate it. He likes the netsuke collection. He likes the Noguchi table and the perfect cabinetry and the great dinners Akiko prepares every night. He is, in a sense, part of the rigorously curated domestic world Akiko has created (she even picks out his clothes for him). And, at the same time, it rankles him. He needs, it seems, to be forcibly ejected from his private Eden.

All good. I wish, however, that Ducornet had looked longer and harder at the skeevy little world she’s summoned.

One of the trickier questions that faces every novelist is, how much information is too much, and how little too little? If we try to fully account for our characters’ every motive, dread and desire; if we sift through their pasts for all the bone chips and pottery fragments of their childhoods, we risk overexplicating them. We squelch a certain animating mystery that is part of humanness. If we pass too glancingly over them, though, they’re little more than ciphers. Subterranean chains of cause and effect are also part of humanness.

I suspect that Ducornet may have decided, rightly enough, that a story of such destructive sexual perversity wanted a light hand in terms of explanation. Anything resembling a theory about why the analyst so carelessly harms his patients would have been disastrous. Novelists are not theorists, nor should they pretend to be.

Ducornet has erred too much on the side of discretion, though. The world, of course, abounds in malignant characters. It is the novelist’s job to complicate such people, if not necessarily to redeem them. Underexamined wickedness is what we get from newspapers.

By delving into a character’s motives, a writer fulfills one of fiction’s most powerful potentials — the ability to draw the reader into a character, including the most repellent of them. Fiction can show readers what it’s like to be someone very different from themselves, even if that drawing-in is discomfiting.

The pure malice of Ducornet’s analyst is not alleviated by her reluctance to show us much by way of the injuries he’s inflicting on his patients. Ducornet treats the analyst’s patients as offhandedly as does the analyst himself. The book’s atmosphere of arid heartlessness begins to produce a parched feeling in the reader.

In creating her conscienceless therapist, and depicting his patients so peripherally, Ducornet has written a book that feels, by its conclusion, as much like an unorthodox, noir-ish thriller as it does a serious novel. Although it holds one’s interest throughout, it isn’t quite satisfying on either front.

I would suggest that Ducornet has relied overmuch on certain assumptions. It’s become something of a given in American fiction that bourgeois amplitude equals unhappiness. It’s also assumed, by many American novels (and movies and TV shows and so on), that anyone who practices psychiatry is incompetent at best and, at worst, sadistic and narcissistic, an exterminator of the spirit.

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Both of those assertions are sometimes true and sometimes not. A writer must make a case for profound discontent on the part of any character who’s got everything for which most of the world’s population strives, and for an analyst who systematically and without guilt soul-­murders his patients. It’s not quite enough for a novelist to portray such acts of sadism and self-sabotage without penetrating, to some degree, their sources.

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